When I picked up Cornelius Hunter’s Science’s Blind Spot: The Unseen Religion of Scientific Naturalism, I expected the “unseen religion” of the title to refer in some way to atheistic naturalism itself. Whether naturalism is a form of religion depends on definitions. If religion is defined as a system of beliefs involving the supernatural, then naturalism certainly doesn’t fit the description. Some, however, define it as any system of belief regarding where we came from, what is ultimately real, and what is finally important or (per Paul Tillich) of ultimate concern. That definition’s wide scope could certainly include naturalism.
I was expecting Hunter to argue that naturalism was religious by the latter, looser definition. I was wrong. His claim was bolder than that, more potentially controversial—yet at the same time more founded in fact, and less in loosely controllable preferences regarding meanings of words. Scientific naturalism, says Hunter, was explicitly born from within the family of Christian theology, and dwells even now in buildings erected on the same ancestral property. We think of naturalism as rejecting religion, but it was actually historically rooted in it, and it seems to have difficulty running away from it.
Hunter traces two streams in intellectual history, rationalist and empiricist. Aristotle was the rationalist above all other philosophers. In early modern philosophy, Descartes supremely represents that stream. Francis Bacon, considered by many to be the founder of scientific methodology, represents empiricism—not that anyone is a pure example of either rationalism or empiricism, for no person has ever occupied the extreme endpoints of the continuum between the two.
How are the two distinguished from each other? I’ll come back to rationalism in a moment. Empiricism (in this context) is an approach which lets empirical evidences rule over scientific conclusions, with as little regard for metaphysical preconceptions as possible. Hunter’s attitude toward empiricism is perhaps best explained through his depiction near the end of the book (p. 137), in a section titled “An Alternative to Rationalism:”
The empirical approach is much less certain about the form of the result. And at the end of the investigation, it is less certain about the truthfulness of the result. Problems are complicated, and humanity is not always up to solving them completely. The empirical approach is not as tidy as the rational approach. But it also does not constrain itself to predetermined notions. It is more amenable to new and unexpected results.
All of this sounds like standard scientific reasoning. It echoes Intelligent Design opponents’ voices calling us all not to rush to conclusions, not to be in a great rush to fill in the gaps with God. Intelligent Design, they say, is built around a predetermined belief in God, and marshals all its evidence only toward that end.
But just as the empirical approach is not as tidy as the rational approach, so the history of ideas is not as tidy as many mistakenly think it is. Hunter introduces rationalism with this (pp. 11-12):
The assumption of naturalism in science is … a consequence of metaphysical reasoning, and the implications for science are profound…. naturalism provides science with well-defined universal criteria to which it conforms. Instead of merely following the data wherever it may lead, science already has a framework in place. The answer, to a certain extent, is already in place. This is a move toward rationalism and away from empiricism. The result is that science has a powerful philosophy of science, but as we shall see… it does not come without cost…. naturalism brings with it a blind spot.
The rest of the book is about what I left out in the ellipses in that quote. Bear with me a moment before I fill in the blanks. I want us to think about the part of this that I have already quoted. Is it true that science is guided, even controlled, by an assumption of naturalism? Let’s acknowledge that there is no such thing as “science” to be monolithically governed by one stream of thought. Nevertheless it is still true that many of the most prominent spokespersons insist that science treat the natural world as if it is all that exists. God and the supernatural, they insist, either do not exist, or if they do, they are useless or irrelevant as far as science is concerned.
If this is the case, as Hunter says and I think we all must agree, is it a “move … away from empiricism”? Of course it is. God’s non-existence has not been and cannot be proven in the lab or the field. Or is naturalism a necessary assumption for science—that the scientist must at least be a practical atheist? Some would say so, but this is just not at all the case. It’s based on completely mistaken or ad hoc assumptions about God. Any person who says that all knowledge should come by way of science, and that he or she is quite sure there is no God at work in the world, speaks a contradiction.
This is all fairly familiar. What Hunter surprisingly adds to it is the historical roots for the naturalism that is common within science. Let me fill in some of those ellipses now, with emphasis added:
The assumption of naturalism in science is neither a result of atheistic influence nor an empirically based scientific finding.
Theological naturalism provides science with well-defined universal criteria to which it conforms.
Theological naturalism brings with it a blind spot.
Do you see now why I chose to introduce the topic at a gradual pace? Things could get confusing here. What on earth is “theological naturalism”? Isn’t that a self-contradictory concept?
No, it’s not, for though the naturalism that reigns in science today may be atheistic, it is unabashedly theological in nature. And in its historical beginnings its theology was even Christian, in a way. It wasn’t good Christian theology, but it was certainly theology in a Christian tradition.
In 1671 the Anglican chaplain Thomas Burnet wrote that the world was filled with majesty and grandeur yet also with “incredible confusion” and (as Hunter adds in his words, page 52) “lack of symmetry and proportion:”
From a distance the mountains were awe inspiring, but up close there were irregular rocks, moraines, and valleys. Maps and atlases portrayed well-ordered and symmetrical mountains, but Burnet found them to be “shapeless and ill-figured.”
To Burnet this did not seem like the kind of thing God would design. In fact, in 1681 he wrote (Hunter, p. 20),
We think him a better Artist… that makes a Clock that strikes regularly at every hour from the Springs and Wheels which he puts in the work, than he that hath so made his Clock that he must put his finger to it every hour to make it strike.
Hunter goes on to explain,
In other words, special divine action should be minimized. It is better for God to make a self-sufficient machine than to make one needing divine intervention.
This Anglican writing more than 300 years ago sounds astonishingly similar to Francisco Ayala today, who insists that God must be absent from nature, or else evil has no explanation. Or to Ken Miller, who cannot believe God would want to take credit for the mosquito. Or to Ian Barbour, who said (p. 120),
There seem to be too many blind alleys and extinct species and too much suffering and waste to attribute every event to God’s specific actions.
Or even to Darwin, who could not understand why (p. 121),
the supposed creative force produced bats and no other mammals on remote islands? … Facts, such as these … admit of no sort of explanation on the ordinary view of independent creation.
It sounds like Douglas Futuyma today, who (in Hunter’s paraphrase, p. 135) cannot believe God would have created nature so “full of useless features, inadequate design, shoddy workmanship, and harshness or cruelty”? Or evolutionary biologist George C. Williams who thinks a real God would have made better use of the sun (p. 133):
Why, then, would it be so far away, and why would it be enormously larger than the earth? This makes for a wasteful design…. Williams suggests a precisely shaped and brightly polished reflector mounted behind the sun to reflect wasted light upon the earth. As it is, the real earth-sun system “shows no such evidence of purposive engineering.”
One could easily ridicule a sentiment like that, but it would be grossly unfair to do so without having the context in which WIlliams said it. Instead we need to focus on this: Are these not theological arguments? Do they not presuppose a certain view of God? From whence within science does such a view of God come? The answer, of course, is nowhere; it does not come from within science. Historically it came from theologians in the Christian tradition: Thomas Burnet along with Ralph Cudworth, John Ray, Thomas Wolleston, Peter Annet, Charles Kingsley, and others, all of whom taught a view of God that they thought was Christian, and which required God to keep his hands off of his creation. This was not a Biblical view, but it was a view about God, propounded by men who actually believed in such a God. Naturalism was born in theology. Its parentage remains evident.
The “blind spot” spoken of in the title is scientific naturalism’s unawareness of its theological heritage. And it is also its diseased inability to see the possibility—not the certainty or proof, which Hunter does not consider to be in the purview of science, but the possibility—of a designer involved in nature. His arguments for design are well stated, yet they are also familiar, so I will not spend time on them here. More important is the gentle way he opens the philosophical door to the possibility of thinking of design. The alternative to rationalism Hunter espouses is aptly named moderate empiricism. We have met it already, in the first quote I provided near the beginning of this review. It’s a humble approach to knowledge. Unlike naturalism, it does not assume it sees all there is to see. It does not blind its eyes to the possibility of unexpected ultimate explanations.
There are flaws in this book. Several sentences and paragraphs in the early chapters could have used a copy editor’s review (which is surely often the case with my blogging, too, but a blog post just can’t go through as many cycles of review and revision as should be done with a book). Somehow that all seemed to diminish in the middle and end of the book, and I found myself less often needing to re-read, or wishing I could re-write something Hunter had said. The overall structure and flow could be more logical. There is a reason I started this review by quoting from near the end of the book.
Still I’m glad I pushed on through the awkward constructions and the somewhat strange sequence of topics. By the end of the book, Hunter had made his argument superbly clear, and along the way he provided persuasive evidence. If he is right, then naturalism is not just a blind spot: it is an inescapably theological blind spot.